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Comics Are Books — 5 Things to Remember When You Read Them With Your Kids

Dec 17, 2018

I read a lot of comics this year — from self-published, hand-stapled pamphlets to big, thick hardcovers. But the comic I’ve read and reread the most in 2018 has been this wonderfully weird book I bought three years ago. It’s called The Kurdles, by Robert Goodin, and my four-and-a-half-year-old cannot get enough of its 60 pages.

A teddy bear helps a group of misfits who are worried because their house has grown hair and constantly sings sea shanties: this is everything my son wants out of literature.

We read quite a few comics together (and my eight-and-a-half-year-old daughter has her own favourites), so I’m always struck by how many families don’t share this kind of storytelling with their kids. If you’re new to comics and want to try some with your little ones or pick up some titles for them to read on their own, here are a few things to keep in mind.


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You don’t read comics aloud, you perform them

Comic books and picture books aren’t the same thing. Sure, they can both have words and pictures sharing a page, but in comics you have to “read” the images as much as you do the text. The images, especially when there are lots of them on a single page, might depict an action or a range of emotions or the passage of time, and there won’t necessarily be a narrator to guide you. It’s a show-don’t-tell approach that can be pretty easy when you’re reading it to yourself, but can be tricky when you’re doing it out loud for an audience.

When you share these books with a preschooler, it feels closer to a dramatic performance than a reading. Speaking from experience, a 20-page comic bedtime story takes way longer than a picture book or chapter of the same length.

A good way to feel the difference is by reading something like Canadian John Martz’s Evie and the Truth About Witches, which combines comic and picture-book approaches. When you get to the comic parts, you’ll probably find yourself discussing details or asking questions (“What’s she doing now? Is she happy or sad or scared?”). His earlier A Cat Named Tim and Other Stories is another fun read that takes patience; it uses surprisingly complex panels to tell really simple stories. Reading it with my kids involves a lot of pointing and tracing the page to show how things happen.


It’s really easy to find the right comic for your kids

Online, you’ll come across lots of best-of lists, reviews and suggestions, but there’s really no substitute for heading down to your local bookstore, library or comic shop and flipping through the pages to see if it might be a good fit.

Last year, I spoke with Christine Rentschler, an expert with Toronto’s The Beguiling — an internationally lauded comics shop and home to one of the best for-kids sections on the planet — to get recommendations for finding the right comic for the right kid. Another one to add to that list: one of my favourite comics this year has been The Dragon Slayer by Jaime Hernandez, a collection of three short, simple, forever-rereadable adaptations of Central American folk tales.


Comics encourage ‘traditional’ literacy

This year, we started reading Raina Telgemeier’s comic adaptations of the Baby-Sitters Club with our daughter. Then she started rereading them on her own, followed by Raina’s other books like Smile, Sisters and Ghosts. It’s also directly led her to diving into the original Ann M. Martin’s Baby-Sitters Club novels, feeling confident with having a visual background of the plot.

If you want kids to read, let them pick what they read (or what you read to them). Some people question the literary value in reading graphic novels, but clever text is text whether it’s in comics or prose. It fosters a love of reading and builds vocabulary. (I learned more words from DC Comics than dictionaries.) A kid that gets hooked on a manga series with dozens of volumes will be reading a lot of words, even if those words are interspersed by cool drawings.


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Comics help kids become more visually literate

Literacy goes beyond reading and comprehending written words. Kids who are fluent in comics are also able to interpret and understand other types of information presented as images.

Whether it's restroom signage, Ikea instructions or that red, underlined 100 in a group chat, people need to be able to decode visuals and graphic representations. Simple images can carry lots of meaning — one of the reasons why Oxford Dictionaries selected the cry/laugh emoji as “word of the year.” Comics encourage readers to quickly decipher images and how they all relate to one another — a particularly useful skill as language continues to evolve.


Comics can encourage not only a love of reading, but an appreciation for art

My kids are getting better at recognizing different cartoonists and already have a sense of what they like and what they find ugly.

But the visual component of comics is more than the art itself — it’s also about how the panels are laid out on a page. Using simple language, we’ve talked about how Luke Pearson’s adventurer Hilda (now a pretty perfect series on Netflix), will use different panel sizes or repetition for effect. It’s probably a bit much to suggest this is the start in a lifelong interest in graphic design or cinematography, but you never know.

My kids also love to mimic the format of some of my mini comics and zines as a means of expression. Using a simple folding process or sheets of paper and a big stapler, they have created so many of their own comics — endless inspiration for their stories and imagination.

Article Author Erik Missio
Erik Missio

Read more from Erik here.

Erik Missio used to live in Toronto, have longish hair and write about rock ‘n’ roll. He now lives in the suburbs, has no-ish hair and works in communications. He and his wife are the proud parents of a eight-and-a-half-year-old girl who is already pretty adept with a tablet, and a four-and-a-half-old boy who probably will be sooner than appropriate. He received his MA in Journalism from the University of Western Ontario.

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